Symbols & Symbolism in Frankenstein

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  • 0:01 What Is a Symbol?
  • 0:58 Fire and Light
  • 2:48 Adam
  • 4:06 Walton's Quest
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Breazeale
Symbols appear in literature all across the world, and Mary Shelley's famed 'Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus' is no exception, including many symbols in its pages. In this lesson, learn about these symbols and their importance.

What Is a Symbol?

When you see a majestic bald eagle perched high in a tree, what do you think of? You probably think, 'That's pretty cool' or 'How beautiful!' If you live in the U.S., you might also think of America and patriotism, because you often see bald eagles in some type of 'American Pride' context. This makes a bald eagle a symbol for patriotism.

A symbol is a person, place, or thing used to represent a large, difficult concept, something more abstract that may be hard to define. One example, which was mentioned before, is patriotism, which is hard to bring up in a book without boring you to death. That's where symbolism comes in handy, because symbols are used to engage readers on a certain topic in a more relatable way than massive bundles of text.

In this lesson, you'll study these three major symbols from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus: fire and light, Adam, and Walton's quest.

Fire and Light

Fire and light serve a major symbolic purpose in this novel, as they represent the dual nature of progress, discovery, and scientific innovation. Think of it like this: fire can provide heat, but it can also burn. And just as fire can provide and destroy, so can scientific progress. It's all about what you do with these things, right? Frankenstein uses his knowledge to create a man, but he also indirectly causes the destruction of those he loves, as well as the destruction of his own creation.

Progress and innovation are both described in terms of light in the story. For example, Captain Walton says his journeying north, to the 'country of eternal light,' while Frankenstein's burst of insight is described as 'a sudden light.' These are good things, right? Both men are making great discoveries in their respective fields. But of course, nothing in this book stays good for long.

Things take a turn for the worse with both men. Walton is stranded in the Arctic, packed in by ice, and Frankenstein is immediately horrified by his creation and abandons it. You'll also notice that light isn't always used in positive ways, as the first thing the monster knows when he awakens is that 'light pressed upon my nerves,' which sounds more stressful than anything. Light, for the monster, is bad, because in the dark he can stay safe. In the light, people can see his scary face, ruining any chance at human connection.

Fire is even more destructive than light in this novel. The monster burns down a cottage after he is rejected, and Frankenstein's fascination with science begins after he sees a tree struck by lightning. Also, don't forget the obvious reference to the title of the novel. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and was damned for eternity. Frankenstein, it could be said, steals the fire of creation and is eternally punished by the loss of those he loves.


Adam is one of many allusions to the Bible in this novel and is a symbol for the creation of man, or a new species. Okay, so human beings aren't exactly a new species by this point, but they are in the biblical creation story. God creates man in his own image, or so goes the story, so if Victor Frankenstein created his own Adam in his own image, what do you think that says about how Victor sees himself?

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